Losing My Mother While Gaining My Husband

I didn't get the dream wedding, and that's alright

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We were already engaged. I had a dress, a ring, and was committed, but what really solidified the understanding I had chosen the right man with whom to join my life was a conversation with my family, my future husband, and a palliative care social worker about how my mother would want to live out the remainder of her days on earth.

I met Camilo in September 2012 in Montgomery, Alabama, a place neither of us belonged, but were brought to by a belief in social justice and the law. I was instantly comfortable with him, finding myself pouring out my fears I had chosen the wrong job fresh out of graduate school within our first few hours of meeting. We got to know each other on long days in Birmingham, conducting community outreach. I found Camilo to be so genuine, kind, confident, intelligent, and caring. Lucky for me, he was also handsome and single. By October we were officially a couple. One morning in November he told me that he loved me and though I had not been able to put words to what I was feeling before that moment, once he said it, I knew those were the right ones and told him the same thing. In December, he went back to Seattle to study for the bar exam and we entered that special hell of having the one you love a very expensive plane ride away.

In January 2013 on the night before my birthday, my father called to tell me the seemingly innocuous stomach pains my mother had been having for months were the over looked evidence of the primary peritoneal cancer that had now filled her body cavity. A couple weeks later in early February, I flew up to Alaska to sit in the waiting room while a surgeon worked to clear her body for almost eight hours.

In March once the bar exam was over, Camilo flew back to Alabama to see me, took me to the beach, and asked me to be his wife. Even with a relationship speed typically reserved for romantic comedies or cautionary tales, I knew enough to know I should say yes because of course I loved him and wanted to spend my life with him. My best friend and I bought a dress on a lark off the rack at David’s Bridal. It was beautiful and she cried, which was perfect.

My mama started chemotherapy in early March, barely recovered at all from the extensive surgery. The chemo was horrible and she got sicker and sicker, finally unable to get out of bed, eat, or move. She slept most of the day and spent her waking hours in agony. She lost almost one hundred pounds. By mid-April 2013, she was rushed by ambulance to the hospital with a severe infection. I hopped on a plane for the second of what would be seven trips to Alaska and met my little sister and dad in her hospital room. Mama looked awful. I love her and treasure her memory too much to write about what afflicted her there, but within twenty-four hours, we had spoken to a palliative care nurse who told us it was time to gather everyone. They did not know what was taking my mama, but it was taking her fast.

I called Camilo who jumped on a plane, as did the rest of my sisters (five of us in all) and my brother-in-law. And that is how we found ourselves in a room talking about what Mama would want because the time had come that she could no longer decide for herself.

And then, miraculously, Mama got better. By “got better,” I merely mean she did not die. She was foggy-headed and in pain and confused and slept much of the time, but she did not die and we got to take her home.

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I should mention Camilo and I had no money. He had put the plane ticket on a credit card rapidly approaching its limit and I had borrowed money from my next paycheck to get to Alaska. We had no idea what our lives would look like or how we would get from a bi-coastal relationship to married couple, but I had a ring on my finger, a dress, and a man who clearly was the love of my life. My entire family was in Alaska with us and Camilo’s parents lived on the West Coast. We did not know if my mother would ever be able to travel again, so we decided on Friday to get married the following Tuesday afternoon. We found a chalet overlooking a snowy hill and decided we would all go out to a restaurant for an early dinner following. A friend in Alabama mailed me my dress. I called to tell my best friend the awful news that she would not be at my wedding, but she just asked me when and where and bought her plane ticket from Kentucky to Alaska to leave two days later. My mother-in-law bought a ticket too and it looked like this might actually happen.

And it did. Our day was not perfect, and it was not what I had imagined. My mother was on so many medications that she fell asleep while I put my dress on, and I turned around to find her snoring just as I asked her what she thought. It was then that I started to cry. She was not there to help me pick out my dress or decide how to do my hair, to exclaim over venue, or worry about flowers, but losing this moment was too much. So, I let myself feel the moment. I let myself understand that she would not be able to recall the details of the day or be the mother I knew, loved, and needed on that day, and I made a conscious decision that that would be alright. I would not get the dream wedding, and that would be alright. I did not know then I would be getting a marriage that more than makes up for it.

Camilo and I planned the reception via text message as we drove separately to the venue, my daddy walked me down the aisle, a high school kid with a great eye took pictures for $25, and I married an excellent man whom I love more today than I could have known on that day. My mama was there and fifteen months later, my husband and I flew back to Alaska to help bury her. And if I thought I knew he was the right man in that tiny conference room in that hospital, watching my husband help to carry my mother’s casket to her final resting place was the most convincing proof of true love I have ever experienced.

I have gorgeous memories of my wedding day: my sisters helping me plan through their sleep deprived grief fogs, the happiness we were able to bring my family in a very dark time, everyone crying throughout the ceremony at the beauty and magnitude of what was happening, my mother surprising us all by finding her voice through the haze of illness to stand up and tell us she loved and would support us and our marriage, marrying my husband. I do not regret a single thing about how that day happened, and I am truly fortunate to have had it in just that way.

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  • Lizzy

    Oh. The tears. Congratulations to you both and I am so sorry to hear of your mother’s passing. You are blessed to have been able to have her with you for that moment and be surrounded by people who clearly value you and your husband very, very much.

  • snf100

    Clearly the title should have warned me that I was going to cry reading this but it was lovely at the same time. I had a similar feeling knowing I had picked the right person to marry when my husband held me and told me my dad had died suddenly and has continued to hold me every time I have cried over it in the last 10 months

  • scw

    this is so beautifully written and so sad. I’m sorry for your loss but glad you have such a great partner.

  • Anka

    Definitely teared up – your love for your whole family really shone through this piece.

  • Ella

    Wow. I think this is only the second time in two years I have really, truly cried reading an article on APW.

    Your friend shipped your dress from Alabama!!! What a wonderful friend.

    Beautiful story, beautiful wedding. Elizabeth, I wish you and Camilo the absolute best!

  • Kendal

    Gorgeous. Just like you.

  • Oh, this is beautiful! Thank you for sharing through your writing. Lots of love, Emily

  • Eh

    I am so sorry for your loss. This was such a beautiful story (and I had the same dress!).

    My mother passed away of cancer when I was a teenager. I remember at the time thinking how much I wanted her at my wedding and how much I wanted her to meet my children (and as those life events and other have come up I have dearly missed her). I knew it wasn’t the right time to get married and I knew getting pregnant would also be a bad idea.

  • Gretchen

    Congratulations, and thank you. My future grandmother-in-law and the heart and soul of my fiancee’s family is entering hospice today, with likely days before she passes. We are three-ish weeks from our wedding and really needed the reminder that it is ok to have the affirmation of life in the midst of death.

    • Eh

      I am sorry to hear that you are going through that. I believe it’s very important to celebrate life’s joys even when going through rough times. It’s hard to do it sometimes (says the girl who left her senior prom because she was conflicted about being happy while her mom was in the hospital having chemotherapy). My cousin was married three weeks after my mom passed away. It was really wait my family needed.

    • Elizabeth Young-Ortiz

      Lots of hugs to you and your family! I think in situations like yours (and mine) a wedding takes on so much more meaning, not just for us, but for our families.

  • Oh god, I was crying in public with this one. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Sara

    Beautiful and heartbreaking. But also, that high school student did a magnificent job with your photos. That last one is beautiful.

  • Dallas Thompson

    What got me was, “I called to tell my best friend the awful news that she would not be at my wedding, but she just asked me when and where and bought her plane ticket from Kentucky to Alaska to leave two days later.”

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing.

    • Lindsay Rae

      That’s exactly when I lost it too. Pretended to hold it in until that sentence.

  • Kelsey

    Thank you so much for writing this, Elizabeth.

  • vegankitchendiaries

    This was so beautiful. Not a “dream wedding”, but definitely what a wedding is all about. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Elizabeth

      I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Awed

    How beautiful, and how lucky you are to have such wonderful people in your life. And those are AWESOME pictures!

  • AGCourtney

    Beautiful. As everyone else is saying, there may be a tear or two in my eyes. What a wonderful family and support network you have. I’m sorry for your loss, but glad for your marriage. <3

  • Amanda L

    What a beautiful post. I am misty-eyed thinking about the love you have for both your husband and your mother. Even without the wedding of your dreams, it sounds like you are a lucky woman.

  • Danielle Antosz

    Beautiful!

  • Kayleigh

    I love you Lizzie. This was beautiful and your mama would be so proud. I’m so glad you found Camilo.

  • Christa

    Alaskan kid here: I, too, spent an enormous amount of time at the Providence Hospital Oncology unit, while my mom was being treated there. My mom had a bunch of lymph nodes removed a week before our wedding, so your writing really rings home. Thanks for sharing.

    • Elizabeth Young-Ortiz

      OMG Providence Hospital was like a second home! It’s weird how one place can hold such awful memories and such good ones of my family together. I hope your mother is doing well now!

  • kate

    no words, just tears. thank you for sharing

  • I don’t know you but am so moved by your strength, to tell your story with honesty, and to allow yourself to feel everything you did, and accept those difficult moments. So much love and respect to you and your family <3

  • Heather

    Elizabeth thank you so much for sharing your beautiful wedding with all of us. I am so very sorry for your loss. I lost my mother to a heart attack in undergrad and I miss her everyday as we plan our wedding. My father in law lost his battle with cancer in September last year and we decided to cancel our wedding orginally scheduled for April of this year to allow ourselves time to grieve the loss of a great mentor and friend. He wanted so much to be at our wedding…. My fiance and I grieve with you and your family in solidarity. I wish you all the best as you enter this new phase of your life with your loving and supportive husband. May your love for each other continue to restore you through life’s most difficult experiences.

    • Elizabeth Young-Ortiz

      Wishing you the best! I hope you and your finance have a beautiful wedding and I’m sure your marriage will be all the better for supporting each other through difficult times.

      • Heather

        Thank you so much. I really appreciate your kind sentiment. Take Care!

  • Kelly

    Just…wow…This is so moving and beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Lorri

    “And if I thought I knew he was the right man in that tiny conference
    room in that hospital, watching my husband help to carry my mother’s
    casket to her final resting place was the most convincing proof of true
    love I have ever experienced.”
    There you go. That says it all.

  • Eden

    This is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

  • jubeee

    So many tears right now, I am going through this myself right now. I am so happy that you got to marry the man you loved with the people you loved most, especially your mother, there with you.

  • cry warning! this is beautifully written. I’m so sorry for your loss, and so happy for you and your husband. How wonderful that she got to be a part of your day.

  • CJ

    That was a beautiful story, and I’m sorry for your loss. That must have been so difficult. I hope you can take comfort in the memory of your lovely mother being there by your side on your wedding day, and that is worth more than any “dream” wedding. My own mother passed only eight days before my wedding (very unexpectedly), and I wish more than anything she could have been there with us. So your story hit very close to home, and thank you for sharing it. When you are going through something like this, it’s helpful to read about others going through similar things. To know that you can and will get through it.

    • Elizabeth Young-Ortiz

      I cannot imagine!! Sending you lots of good thoughts!!

  • It’s the marriage, not the wedding, that’s truly important.

  • Staria

    Darling, GOOD ON YOU. Good on you for not letting the perfect get in the way of the beautiful or what-we-have-right-now. And thank you. It’s all this kind of stuff I have in mind when I tell my partner I want us to be married: so many people we love are still with us, and I’ve had too many taken already to be easy that things will just be fine, everyone we want will be with us. I’m really sorry to hear about your mum. It’s never easy. xoxo

  • Kara Davies

    “And if I thought I knew he was the right man in that tiny conference
    room in that hospital, watching my husband help to carry my mother’s
    casket to her final resting place was the most convincing proof of true
    love I have ever experienced.”

    Oh my, all the feels and tears! I’ve not lost a parent yet, but I have lost both my children*. Grief is rough, soul shattering, and completely upending. When you’ve found a good one, it makes grieving all that much easier. I can’t imagine losing my Momma nor my Daddy so soon.

    *A bright cold clear sunny southern hemisphere winter day in 2010 (June 28th), the day before our 3rd wedding anniversary (yes you read that right), we buried our son. Our second child. Carrying our son’s tiny casket and lowering it into the ground with my husband is one of those experiences I never thought we’d ever have. BUT, through horrid grief fog, it’s one of the prettiest moments I have of the day. (We were in this together and if there was ever a man I’d want to bury my child with, it’s my husband.)

  • Thank you for sharing this. My fiancé’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after we got engaged, and I am glad I was at home by myself when I read this post — still crying like a baby. Thank you, thank you, for sharing.

  • solie

    my story goes to everyone out there that are in the situation that i have also being through. and how i was saved.

    I have been rejected by my husband 6 months ago after (12) of marriage just because another woman had a spell on him and he left me and the kid to suffer. one day when i was reading through the web, i saw a post on how this spell caster on this address (camaralovespell@live.com) have help a woman to get back her husband. and i gave him a reply to his address and he told me that a woman had a spell on my husband and he told me that he will help me and after 2days that i will have my husband back. i believed him and today i am glad to let you all know that this spell caster have the power to bring lovers back. because i am now happy with my husband.

    His email : CAMARALOVESPELL@LIVE.COM

  • Hannah

    Thank you for writing this. My fiancé and I are going through the same thing with my Mother. However, his family are not supportive and will not help or assist in the wedding at all. Instead claiming things like “she’s doing alright at the moment”. Your message about it not being a perfect day but that being alright really spoke to me.
    Thank you so much for sharing and showing me it can work out. And I am so sorry for your loss.